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Looking Back - 25 Years of BLE in Cork - Chapter 1 - First Steps

LOOKING BACK - 25 Years of BLE in Cork



looking back 25 years of ble in cork book cover

Chapter 1 - First Steps


In April 1967 Billy Nestor wrote, in the EVENING ECHO, of the 1967 new agreement that lead to the birth of BLE - BORD LUTHCLEAS na hEIREANN. The special Congresses of the NACAI and the AAUE, held in Dublin, voted for the setting up of the new body which had been officially recognised by the International Amateur Athletic Federation, Billy commented on the fact that the new arrangements did not of course fully satisfy the demands of the athletics follower but nonetheless was a step in the right direction.

Billy was both secretary and 'press officer' on the first BLE County Board. John O'Connell, St Finbarr's was Chairman with John O'Leary, Leevale, and Noel Higgins, Cobh, the Vice-Chairmen. The post of Treasurer was filled by Jerry O'Leary of Grange and that of Vice-President by Pearse Wyse, St Finbarr's.

There was also a 'Ladies County Board' with Mary Jeffords, Leevale, president, her sister Phyllis was vice-president and Betty Cody, Bandon, in the 'Chair'.

The distinction of winning the very first BLE title fell to Dick Hodgins. The well known Leevale man, but then with Donore Harriers, took the Cork to Cobh race which incorporated the National 15 mile Championship. Dick returned a time of 75:18 with Bobby Buckley, Grange, some twenty five seconds behind in second place, but leading his club to team honours. Also scoring for Grange were Gerry Morrissey and Mick Russell.

If Dick had won the first BLE National title it fell to another Corkman to win the first Track Championship. The well known International, Mattie Murphy of the Rising Sun Club, had that honour when taking the 10 mile race on the Santry track in a time of 51:29.4.

In early June further history was made when a Queen's University team travelled from Belfast to compete in the Inter- Varsity Championships, hosted by UCC. The local students did well, all but winning the O'Sullivan Cup for the best all-round team. When the points tally were totalled UCD had retained the Cup narrowly. There were but the two Champions from UCC - Pat O'Riordan, the 'Varsity cross-country Champion, won the mile in 4:33,9 and the three miles in 14:51.5 and Mick O'Flynn who also recorded a double in taking the long, 6.35 metres, and triple, 13.22 metres, jumps.

However whatever of 'agreements' there did remain a number of the NACAI who did not approve of the new situation. At a special convention in late May a 'Cork County Board of the NACAI' was established with Jim Kearney as chairman. There was much general dissatisfaction with the efforts of unity and the situation was stated to be 'confused' with criticism being levelled at the new body, especially the Cork representatives.

Billy Nestor was quick to reply on behalf of the BLE County Board. He insisted that Jim Kearney was present at the (NACAI) County Board meetings in which the issue of unity was discussed; the (NACAI) County Board was, then, in favour of unity with few expressing a negative opinion on the subject. Billy's public relations experience was already standing him in good stead and would stand to him further in the following months as this and other 'thorny' issues would arise. Ballincollig were the hosts for the first sports under BLE auspices in the county in mid April and the first juvenile sports were organised by Togher a week later. Seventeen events in all were run off and there were in excess of three hundred athletes entered. Whatever of politics the athletics continued with sports being held throughout the county.

In early June a certain William Good of Bandon won the 400 metres Cork County Championship race held at the Ovens sports. County and Munster Championships were 'farmed out* to sports meetings at the time and thus featured on many a programme. At Ballinasloe, later that week the St Finbarr's quartet of Mick Dooley, John Roche, Denis Buckley and Cashel Riordan travelled to Ballinasloe to contest the 4X220 yards and 4X440 yards National Championships. The Corkmen returned with both titles winning the mile relay in 3:26.4.

In mid June the inaugural BLE senior 'Counties' were held. A youthful Fanahan McSweeney clocked 9.9 for the 100 yards and 22.3 for the 220. Cashel Riordan took the 440 in 49.4, behind Noel Carroll who competed as a guest. Junior Cummins took the 880 in 1:52.5 with Pat O'Riordan in the 'skull & crossbones' returning 4:15.9 for the mile. The three miler saw a dead heat between Dick Hodgins and Donie Walsh - 13:53.6 being the time given to both. Other Champions included T O'Mahony, UCC (110 metre hurdles), J O'Sullivan, Mallow (long jump), P O'Shea, Millstreet (high jump), Brendan Coughlan, Leevale (shot & discus), Paddy Moore, Leevale (javelin) and A O'Donovan, Cobh (pole vault). The triple was noteworthy for a number of reasons; Mick O'Flyn won with 13.69 metres, 10 centimetres ahead of Riobard O'Dwyer of Beara. Back in third place was Tadgh Twomey, a place he also filled in the high jump where he cleared 1.78 metres. Tadgh took silver in the high hurdles before adding double gold in the 56 for distance and for height with marks of 8.01 metres and 4.27 metres.

There were just the five women's events and the winners included C Cotter, Leeside (100 and 440 yards), M O'Neill, Bandon (880 yards), Margaret Murphy, Emerald (high jump) and the Leeside quartet which took the relay.

The hectic athletics schedule continued with the Europa Cup International in Santry in late June. Dick Hodgins was second in the 5,000 metres (14:50.4) with Donie Walsh also taking second in the 10,000 Metres (31:09,2) and yet another second berth being secured by Junior Cummins in the 1,500 metres (3:52.4). Cashel Riordan was on the 4X400 metres team that also came second! Belgium beat Ireland who relegated the Icelandics to third in the overall classification.

Up at the Summer School of Athletics in Belfield the National Triple Jump Coach, Riobard O'Dwyer, was creating history through staging the first women's triple jump contest in Ireland. Paula Phelan of Crusaders won with 9.49 metres. There was as yet no women's triple at the National Championships held in Santry in July. There were Cork successes in these Championships for Tadgh Twomey, double gold in the 56 events, Pat O’Shea, gold in the high jump, Paddy Moore, silver in the javelin, Len Braham, silver in both 56 events and a bronze in the discus and John FitzGibbon, bronze in the high jump.

Mattie Murphy, Rising Sun, John Buckley, St Finbarr's and Donie Walsh, Leevale were the team that were to represent the new National organization abroad. John O'Connell, chairman of the County Board, and Pearse Wyse, then the Lord Mayor of Cork saw the trio off at Cork airport as they made their way 'behind the Iron Curtain' to Czechoslovakia.

In his secretary's address to the Annual County Convention, Billy Nestor addressed the issue of the continuing division in Irish athletics. He hoped that 'they (NACAI) would see the folly of their ways and join BLE'. Mention too was made, and congratulations extended, of the International representative honours that Cork athletes won during the year.

The low number of sports meetings was also commented upon and in this regard yet another thorny issue came to the fore. Billy spoke of the recognition extended by the Central Council of the GAA to BLE yet the GAA Cork County Board had nonetheless placed a prohibition on the use of their grounds for BLE sports' meetings. There were efforts made to have a deputation received by the GAA Board but to date these remained unsuccessful.

The advent of a 'foot & mouth' epidemic in Britain brought all sport to a standstill for a lengthy period around Christmas. This as Brendan Murphy in his secretary's report to the UCC Athletic Club 'upset all cross-country fixtures and necessitated transferring competitions from grass to road'.

The 1967/68 National cross-country Championships were held in Mallow. Cork were very much to the fore in the men's event. The team of John Buckley, Richie Crowley, Mattie Murphy, Sean Hennessy, Pat O'Riordan and Donie Walsh took the premier honours with Leevale finishing second club. John Hartnett of Grange was fourth in the Youths' race but did have the satisfaction of leading Cork to the county title. The Cork success ensured that there were three Corkmen on the Irish team for the International Cross-Country Championships in Tunisia that March - Mattie Murphy, Donie Walsh and John Buckley.
Dick Hodgins, now with Leevale, prepared for an assault on the Olympic qualifying standard in the distance events through his fine showing in the National track 10 mile. He showed great form as he clocked 49:49.8 to take the title with ease. This was the fourth fastest time in the world that year. Dick went by the six mile mark in 29:29 and felt confident that he would secure the necessary Olympic time during the season.

At Ovens there was discrimination of sorts as the local club organised their women only sports. Margaret Murphy took the 220 yards Cork County Championship sprint and was second in the County triple jump. The event was won by Eileen Kelly of Beara - an International cross-country runner - with 9.74 metres, The irrepressible Riobard O'Dwyer was yet again to the fore in the officials camp as was Paud Murphy! The discrimination extended only to athletes and not officials!

Cashel Riordan was this Summer now tinkering with the 800 metres and he dipped under 1:50 at the Southern Region Championships in Banteer and at the City Sports (1:49.2) in July. At these City Sports Fanahan McSweeney claimed the national 220 yard record with 21.6 - a foretaste of what was to come from this star sprinter.

An 'overseas visitor' made his mark on the local scene. Ian Hamilton from Cobh - on scholarship at Villanova, won the 800 metres in the Cork/Dublin meet in Santry in 1:49.5 - slower than he hoped for. The Olympic 800 qualifying standard was 1:48.5 and both Ian and Billy Bolster were confident as they set off on their two lap race. The quarter was passed in 55.4 but neither could build on that and Ian was just outside the target as indeed was Billy, just behind in second place.

Another to experience frustration in the quest of Olympic qualification times was Dick Hodgins who blazed through the Munster marathon only to collapse 400 metres from the finish.

The temperature that day in Clonmel was over eighty degrees and not suitable for distance running. The St Finbarr's trio of Jack and Flor O'Leary and Fergus O'Donovan took the team title. Controversy centred around the non-inclusion of John Buckley or 1969 Mattie Murphy for the International cross-country Championships in 1969. John was ill and failed to finish the National cross¬country Championships which were again held in Mallow, the race being used as a basis for the selection of the Ireland team. He subsequently ran very well in the International Military cross¬country Championships, held in Ballincollig after the nationals, finishing eight ahead of such as Olympic middle distance star, Mohammed Gamoudi. Whatever of this performance the selectors were not moved and the team as originally selected travelled to Scotland. There was some criticism of the selectors but Padraig Griffin, the Connacht Secretary, in a conversation to John Comyn summed the matter up advising that 'he (Buckley) had the National at his back door.... (and that) the Ballincollig "trial" was a private affair...(and) in future years individual athletes who "failed to deliver the goods" in the National could claim a replay in their bedrooms'. There was much excitement among Cork athletics officials and the St Finbarr's club remained somewhat unenthusiastic regarding the comments on their star runner!

Margaret Murphy of Ovens was by now a well known figure on the athletics scene. She won the first National Pentathlon title with a total of 3,608 points in 1969 and was already being pencilled in as of possible International Championship material. This was the first of her many National titles.
Throughout the Summer the use of GAA grounds was very much to the fore. The Rising Sun sports in May proved to be a great success, despite the last minute change of venue. There the local GAA Club faced suspension by the County Board if the meeting went ahead on their (GAA) grounds. This was not favourably received by the Ballymartle Club, as the CORK EXAMINER reported and many assisted with the running of the sports which were held nearby. The situation in Donoughmore was somewhat different as the proceeds of their sports, held under BLE and ICF rules, were in aid of the new GAA sports field. Further to the west in the County there were more unusual proceedings. In Castletownbere the local club found themselves locked out of the Beara Park. Placards were placed on the gates and a protest march was held in the town before the sports were held in Eyeries, at the GAA grounds!

On the hectic programme of events was the National women's triple jump Championship - Riobard O'Dwyer again very much to the fore. On this occasion Eileen Kelly had to settle for second spot as Margaret Murphy won with 10.47 metres, quite a fine performance.

At the City Sports the enthusiastic crowd were delighted with the American Services team that competed. Charlie Greene and Mel Pender, both members of the 1968 4X100 metres gold medal American squad, and Neil Steinhauer, among the all-time greats of the shot circle captivated the 10,000 or so spectators with their performances. For Charlie there was the unusual spectacle of being 'left' in his blocks at the start; he then proceeded to jog the length of the straight advising the crowd that he was for once beaten by the starter.

The dispute between the GAA and BLE in Cork County was commented upon by Alderman Pearse Wyse, when addressing those assembled. He regretted this dispute but hoped that an amicable solution would soon be found. He also commented on the lack of physical education in schools and called upon school managers and teachers to take an interest in athletics. This was also commented upon by the chairman, John O'Connell who expressed a hope that school authorities would see fit to include physical activities on the curriculum. A number of motions were passed with one restricting the chairmanship of the Board to a maximum of three years in office, to start from 1969.

The New Year opened on a tragic note with the death of top 19 sprinter Pat Lynch of St Finbarr's. Pat was attending the coaching course in Gormanstown and was returning to Cork when his car crashed. Thus one of the most promising talents on the Irish sprinting scene was cut down - well before his prime.
The 1970 cross-country season will be remembered for the International Junior Championship cross-country victory of John Hartnett. That stirring victory in Vichy, France in March was a foretaste of what was to come from the Grange man as he would become a dominant force in Irish middle and long distance running throughout the 'seventies.

On the indoor circuit Fanahan McSweeney was creating major waves on the American circuit. There was a 46.3 Indoor 440 European record and he just missed out on the medals at the European Indoor Championships. On his return to Cork Fanahan found that there was a new rival for his sprinting crown - Brendan O'Regan of UCC. Brendan ended the year with national records in the 100 metres (10.5) and 200 metres (21.4) - the latter set at the National Championships held in Banteer. There he had a treble - 60, 100 and 200 metres.

At the Banteer sports in June all the diplomatic talents of John O'Connell were required to diffuse a controversy over the feature event on the programme - the National 4X400 metre Championship. A week earlier the Grange and Mallow athletic clubs applied to the Board seeking affiliation as the one club.

looking back ballyhooley sports

The splendid open sports meet at Convamore, Ballyhooley, mid ’sixties'


looking back brendan o regan

Brendan O'Regan, top Irish sprinter of the late 'sixties and early 'seventies


looking back german international

Athletes arriving in Germany for an International; many top Cork athletes are present in the

Thus the combined talents of Fanahan and Pat McSweeney, Junior Cummins and Billy Bolster was not to be seen on the day as the ruling was that the application was not heard before a full meeting of the Board. The argument dominated the meeting and few remember that Raheny Shamrocks took the title in 3:24.8.
At the World University Game in Turin Fanahan McSweeney and Brendan O'Regan reached the semi-final of the 400 and 100 metres respectively and Donie Walsh ran very well to place fourth in the 10,000 metres in a personal best of 29:31.6. He also took in the 5,000 metres final, finishing in another personal best of 14:09.8.

At the City Sports Fanahan clocked 21.4 for the 200 metres, a National record subsequently to be equalled by Brendan O'Regan at the National Championships. Margaret Murphy set national figures too - in the long jump with 5.71 metres - as she continued to be the dominant force in women's athletics in Ireland at the time.

Margaret was to show 'remarkable powers of recovery and boundless energy' as the CORK EXAMINER reported as after competing in Santry on a Tuesday in late August. The Wednesday she was in Waterford for a sports there. On the following Saturday she won the Munster pentathlon title with a total of 3,703 points to be followed on the Sunday with another outing at Ballinadee where she was just under her long jump National record.

There were some unusual happenings in Maynooth in March the 1971 following year - with the running of the Inter-Varsity cross¬country Championships. The UCC team arrived with men and women teams of course to discover that the College authorities were non too impressed with the idea of having women competing in shorts. The women's race was transferred to Belfield but as luck would have it the UCC squad never did make it to Dublin as the bus broke down! Back in Maynooth another Cork great finished sixth - Finny Long was to promote the steeplechase to the popularity it now holds on the National scene.
Earlier that season John Buckley took the inaugural National Inter-County cross-country, with Cork placing third. The Cork women were second as well and in the youths' race was a successor to Finny's crown in steeplechasing - Liam O'Brien.

In April the Inter-Varsities were back in Cork and Valerie Shortland was the best for the hosts with a treble. Brendan O'Regan too was in form with a sprint double and a month-later the amiable student caused quite some stir when announcing his retirement from athletics!

Yet whatever of that disappointment, Margaret Murphy went from strength to strength. There was an early season jump in excess of the National long jump record in Ovens but the best was to come and where better than in Banteer. In reporting her six metre jump the CORK EXAMINER chose some immortal wording - 'Leap into Europe for mother of two'.

That Summer proved to be the best yet for the Ovens athlete; besides the long jump there were National records in the 100 metres, 100 metre hurdles and pentathlon.

The European Championships in Helsinki that Summer were memorable for many reasons. For Margaret there was the newspaper that confused her matrimonial relationship; it was reported that she was the wife of miler Frank! Having two husbands at the Europeans - Paud made the journey as well - seemed to have little effect on Margaret. There was a semi-final spot in the high hurdles and she did well in the long jump - 5.73 metres - despite carrying an injury from her hurdles run and the difficulty experienced through competing on the all-weather surface. Fanahan did well to reach the second round, having injury problems throughout the Summer. Donie Walsh ran 28:52.6 - a personal best - in the 10,000 metres final and also recorded 14:12.6 for the 5000.

The 1972 Southern Region cross-country was held in Watergrasshill and pre-race favourite John Buckley duly came in first, with Cork athletes also placing second and third. Yet the team placings saw Cork second overall! The National Championship was held in Clonmel in the worst weather imaginable. This did not stop John Buckley from winning with Leevale chalking up victory in the club contest. The clash with the National Football League game in the same town did not go down too well with the Cork contingent who got caught up in the subsequent traffic snarl as the weather made driving conditions near to next impossible.

The Summer of 1972 was a disappointment for a number of Cork athletes as they strove for Olympic qualifying standards. Pat O'Riordan of Leevale was a possible in the steeplechase but his hopes were dashed when he fell in that event at the National Trials in June. The Santry water jump was a hazard in more ways than normally experienced. Dick Hodgins again failed narrowly in his quest for Olympic qualification as did Len Braham of St Finbarr's in the discus.

For Donie Walsh there was the frustration of being four tenths of a second outside the 10,000 metres time in a race prior to returning 'home*. He put this effort aside and settled to an even greater work load, now concentrating on the marathon and the National in Athlone. In a run to match the scorching late June weather, Donie romped away from the field to clock an outstanding 2:15.21 - third fastest time in the world that year. He passed 5 miles in 25:45, 10 miles in 50:49, the half in 67:10, 15 miles in 78:20 and 20 miles in 104:20. As he said afterwards, he ’never thought of being beaten'.

Margaret Murphy too experienced frustration as the weather and lack of multi-event competitions played havoc with securing the necessary standard in the pentathlon. Early season efforts over the five-eventer were mostly ruined by bad weather. There was a 4,171 points tally at the 'Dyke in May - a tantalising hundred odd points below the standard. Her July 4,384 points tally in Glenstal finally booked her trip to Munich.

For Fanahan McSweeney there was little doubt of Olympic participation as he reeled off sub-48 timings for the quarter at will at sports throughout the county. Mike Keogh, one time Midleton man, broke the 5,000 metre qualifying time in America and had the unusual distinction of competing abroad twice for Ireland in July before actually making his running debut in the councry later that month. The final Cork athlete to travel to Munich was of course John Hartnett, who secured his berth in the 5,000 metres.
At the National Championships in Banteer there was much to enthuse about as many athletes strove for that final great effort that would ensure an Olympic standard. Among the more memorable races was the 1500 where Mike Keogh and Noel Carroll were beaten by John Dooley, himself to gain further recognition in later life as a coach.

At the Munich Olympics the Cork athletes acquitted themselves well. In the 5,000 metres heats Mike Keogh was fifth in his in 13;57,8 with John Hartnett 12th in his heat in 14:34.6. Margaret Murphy duly took part in the pentathlon, notching 3,770 points, and the 100 metre hurdles, recording 15.88 seconds. Fanahan McSweeney clocked 47.1 in his heat of the 400 metres and was just ’caught' on the line thereby missing out on further progress.

Donie Walsh arrived at the Games as one of the fastest marathon men and duly obliged his admirers with a scorching pace at the start of the race. But unfortunately there was to be no Olympic glory as Donie was unable to maintain the pressure,duly coming home in 2:31.1.

Donie did have the satisfaction that following winter of winning the National cross-country title and also of leading Leevale to the silver medal position. This was his third National cross-country gold of the season as he had also lead Cork to the inter-county title

 looking back lord mayor august 1972

Cork Olympians at the Lord Mayor’s Chambers, City Hall, August 1972. Standing from left are Fanahan McSweeney, John Hartnett, Mike Keogh and Donie Walsh. Margaret Murphy is seated beside the Lord Mayor, signing the 'visitor's book'

looking back john buckley wins national senior xc 1967

John Buckley wins the 1966/67 National cross-country, Tullamore, 1967. This was the last pre-BLE Championship


looking back pat lynch fanahan mcsweeney

Pat Lynch & Fanahan McSweeney


looking back brendan coughlan

Leevale shot putter Brendan Coughlan


looking back first ble team
Pearse Wyse, Lord Mayor & John O'Connell see off the first BLE team to compete abroad, Mattie Murphy, John Buckley and Donie Walsh.




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Cork Athletics County Board is a constituent member of Athletics Ireland. Cork Athletics is the governing body, administering athletics, track and field (T&F), cross-country (XC) and running in county Cork. The Board comprises elected representatives of constituent athletic clubs and running clubs. Cork County Board AAI organises Championship races and competition, including road, track & field (T&F) and Cross-country (XC), at junior, juvenile, senior and masters levels, and selects representation for the county. In addition, training and education is provided for coaches and officials. The Board also regulates the Athletics Ireland race/event permit (licence) process for county Cork.
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